The Lake Effect - Ski Mag

The Lake Effect

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Lake Effect 1203

The most shabbily dressed skier at the most blue-blooded Canadian ski resort is a longtime Lake Louise patroller named Neil Scott. It's not hard to spot him on the mountain: Neil's red patrol jacket trails so many threads it looks fringed, his mismatched poles are triaged with athletic tape, and his ancient green down vest exhales feathers at the apex of every turn. Combine this attire with Neil's bushy ginger sideburns and wind-scoured cheeks that crowd laughing blue eyes, and the man looks like a leprechaun stripped of his pot of gold.

One day last March I tailed Neil, 49, as he made his usual rounds of Lake Louise's front side, an aristocratic playground where Hollywood celebrities and British royalty saunter down myriad green runs. For several hours we cruised over freshly combed groomers, spinning closed signs to open, dispensing directions to the day lodge, and picking up and brushing off wealthy Texans who'd tweaked their knees on runs with names like Meadowlark. It was, in a word, Dullsville. For a little excitement, I was hoping the gentility police might bust Neil. His crime: wearing second-hand Völkls and a neck warmer the color of dishwater in a place where gold-monogrammed one-pieces seem standard issue. Neil was oblivious to the contrast, and despite the fact that he may have been the best skier on the mountain, he wound down the groomers the way an old cop steers his Crown Vic around town.

On the lifts, our conversation was a looping affair that swung from Sufi mysticism to cybernetic theory to the virtues of Swix Silver wax. Neil revealed his ski-bum tendencies: He did not own a telephone. He did not own a car. He lived in a spartan apartment. (A friend of his had advised me before meeting Neil, "If you put all his possessions in a pile, you'd probably get arrested for littering.") During the off-seasons Neil had ridden more than 70,000 miles on his 1978 road bike. He had been covered in bees in Malaysia and had sat with Aborigines in the Australian outback. He was even an amateur philosopher. "Humans use four or five different methods of analyzing, eh?" he asked rhetorically while explaining the merits of transcendentalism. All of this confused me. Neil was obviously a man after adventure, so why was he spending his winters on the mellow groomers of Lake Louise?

I got my answer later that afternoon when we finally took the Summit Platter chair to the top of Mount Whitehorn. For the first time I saw Louise's hidden back side. Three dozen expert runs cascaded off the meandering ridgeline: ski-anywhere cirques, cornice plunges, and couloirs pinched by cheese-grater rock bands. Then Neil led me over to the boundary tape and pointed. It's all national park land, he explained, and the terrain is open to anyone who wants to explore it. Around us wrapped Banff's jawbone of peaks, and a horizon of backcountry ski bowls and couloirs. There wasn't a thing mellow about it.

"What makes this place so great," said the sage philosopher, "is that you still have to make your own decisions."

Tapping my own inner philosopher, I decided that I'd seen enough of the front side.

Until March I'd never visited Lake Louise, but I had a mental Polaroid on file: The grand Canadian Rockies skirted in mist like a Bierstadt mural; the proud Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise on the shore of its namesake turquoise lake; the ski area seven miles across the valley with its Milquetoast offerings and paltry 139 inches of average annual snowfall. Louise had always seemed the alpine equivalent of a swank country club with an easy 18.

Then I started hearing about guys like Neil: diehard-yet-quirky locals who neither floated through life on a diet of brie and Bordeaux nor spent any personal time on the ski area's front-side greens. Though it was hard to imagine anyone quite like Neil (few people on earth still raid the backcountry on a pair of 1982, 210-cm Kazamas), Lake Louise supposedly housed plenty of other serious skiers who'dncovered seasons' worth of chancy lines in a place typically known for sense and sensibility. And then I heard it was possible to enjoy LL's high life on the cheap. A local hostel built like an old national park lodge was rumored to offer yoga at dawn, poached salmon in the café, and a $20-a-night price tag. Considering the struggling Canadian dollar, all of this was enough to make me ignore my mother's inadvertent warning. "You'll love Lake Louise, dear," she said on the phone before I left. "You know, your grandmother used to vacation there."

A couple days later I steered up the long drive to the Chateau for a two-night stay in luxury. (If you're gonna confront the myth, you gotta face it head-on, right?) A century ago, even before the larger hotel was built, no fewer than 10 trains a day in summer disgorged viscounts and the haute bourgeoisie in the Bow Valley. Ladies painted watercolors on the shore while striplings in pinafores threw rocks into the lake named for Queen Victoria's daughter. Later, Sir Norman Watson, onetime owner of the ski hill and the eccentric son of an English margarine baron, spent years trying to transform Lake Louise into the "Engadin of the New World"—complete with brown cows, a string of backcountry huts for the well-heeled skier, and imported Swiss peasants.

In some ways, little has changed. When I arrived at the Chateau, two young men in Alpine hats and loden knickers greeted me at the door and vanished with my baggage. A third whisked away the car. Inside, the Chateau had the bustling elegance of a European grand hotel—487 rooms, 650 employees, six restaurants, and a host of smaller lounges and eateries. From the entryway I looked across the valley and saw the ski area's broad south face, a sunny tangle of well-cared-for blue runs just steep enough to quicken the middle-aged pulse.

When the bellboy learned that I was here to ski, he let loose with stories about his typical, less-than-mountain-folk guests. There was the group of blue hairs who refused to take the coveted window spots facing Lake Louise at dinner, lest the distant Victoria Glacier calve and send a "Poseidon Adventure" tidal wave through the hotel. Then there was the well-to-do European who asked where all the bears were kept during the winter. Sleeping on the seventh floor, an employee told him, but you must come back in spring to see them. The man did; the employee was fired.

My own perceptions of Lake Louise changed after I met Neil and he pointed out the back-side riches. A day after that I hooked up with another local for a guided tour. Thirty-eight-year-old Yves Drouin is a senior waiter at the Post Hotel, a discreet but ultraswank, 97-room lodge with an acclaimed restaurant and a 30,000-bottle wine cellar. By night, Yves helps deconstruct the bouquet of $900 bottles of La Tache for the restaurant's A-list guests; by day, he is a freelance ski instructor for software moguls and other bigwigs (that week it was The New Yorker's literary editor). With his crisp, Euro-style ski outfit, Quebec accent, and graying regal hair, Yves hardly appeared different from his wealthy students. But like most locals, off the clock he quickly dropped his patience for the tourists."Some people, I'm teaching them the same freakin' thing for seven years," he ranted as we got on the Summit Platter. "I can teach the tight-assed, proper technical turns, but I like to do the full-on, hard skiing."

As we reached the top of 8,765-foot Mount Whitehorn, he laid down his guidelines. "The rule here is if most people go right, you go left." In other words, lose the crowd and you'll find slopes where the tea-takers fear to snowplow. He followed Rule Number One with Rule Number Two, which I was already familiar with: "You only want to ski the back side." Then he shoved off.

I chased after him—first down a bumped ridgeline, then down one of the eight gullies that comprise the headwall called Whitehorn 2. The mountain dropped, bulged, dropped again. The snow was unexpectedly deep. This side of the mountain, Yves later explained, is sheltered from both prevailing winds and sun. Storms carry snow from elsewhere and dump it here, sometimes tripling the accumulation of the front side. Goodbye, Dullsville.

When we finished that run, Yves showed me the locals' lap: up the back side's Paradise Chair, followed by a flying groomer down the front to the Summit Platter, then over to the back side for a drop into a different treeless chute off Whitehorn's summit, or perhaps a left hook to Brown Shirt, a less visited line with a punctuating cliff band. Later, we skirted big bumps on the edge of Paradise Bowl and dropped into Pika Trees, a pinball forest so tight I was brushing bark off my shoulders. Each back-side run was eerily empty save for a few visitors who stuck dogmatically to the four blue and green runs that guided them to the cat track and safety. Off piste was the locals' haunt: When we stopped on Whitehorn to look around, a few hotshots blew past us, heckling Yves for his lollygagging. Yves had paused to point out Louise's other stash—the hikeable 8,902-foot Lipalian Mountain, home to the broad chest of Purple Bowl, the terrain used annually in the Canadian Powder 8 Champion-ships. (Unfortunately, we could only gawk; some of the worst snow stability in decades meant skiing the backcountry was a death wish.)

Between runs, Yves emerged as every bit the soul-skiing mountain freak Neil was. Sure, Neil stuck to the spartan way of life while Yves wasn't afraid of taking advantage of his privileged pupils: He told me about some pharmaceutical reps who took him heli-skiing the previous week and about another client's million-dollar house in Portugal where Yves planned to spend part of the summer. But like Neil, Yves had a respectable dedication to his sport. He was on the mountain every day—130 days the previous winter. "I live two stop signs from fresh tracks," he said. "I bought my SUV automatic so I could drive in my ski boots." It wasn't long before Yves, too, waxed philosophical. "I like the simplicity of Lake Louise," he said at lunch that day as he surveyed the slopes and the valley below. "It's kind of pure to the eye all the time. It's pristine, and quiet. There are more trees than people. Last night, after work, did you see Orion lined up with the glacier? It was just…pristine." Lake Louise may not be a hotbed of transcendental insight, but I let his half-baked rumination slide. The place is…pristine.

My remaining days at Lake Louise were a similar mix of high and low tastes—filet mignon of bison dipped in boiling fondue oil at the Chateau's wood-paneled Walliser Stube, followed by shepherd's pie at the locals' bargain hangout, the Outpost Pub, and a bunk at the Alpine Centre Hostel (all rumors—yoga, salmon—were true). Late night, when the rest of the valley slept, it was on to the seedy Grill and Bar for "dark 'n' dirties"—Newfoundland Screech dark rum and Coke—and each day revealed another surprise on the mountain. I sampled Lake Louise's massive terrain park, followed a Chateau maitre d' into mellow OB stashes like Maintenance, and, on a clear day after a storm, found fresh tracks—at 1 p.m.!—in Kiddie's Corner.

On my last morning I headed up Louise's old, creaky Eagle chair with Neil, who revealed his favorite LL secret: A couple nights each week, after the lifts closed, instead of returning to the phoneless home he rented in Banff, he skied into the woods to an illicit bivouac he would only coyly acknowledge. In the mornings he'd have backcountry powder all to himself. "Thirty-two below just last week," he told me, after some prodding. "I wore nine layers that night."

Then he told me about the book he was working on. "It's about how you can think about the natural world without only using science," he said. "There's another knowledge out there." Apparently, those frigid nights in the woods brought him closer to his subject. "As Thoreau ped again. The snow was unexpectedly deep. This side of the mountain, Yves later explained, is sheltered from both prevailing winds and sun. Storms carry snow from elsewhere and dump it here, sometimes tripling the accumulation of the front side. Goodbye, Dullsville.

When we finished that run, Yves showed me the locals' lap: up the back side's Paradise Chair, followed by a flying groomer down the front to the Summit Platter, then over to the back side for a drop into a different treeless chute off Whitehorn's summit, or perhaps a left hook to Brown Shirt, a less visited line with a punctuating cliff band. Later, we skirted big bumps on the edge of Paradise Bowl and dropped into Pika Trees, a pinball forest so tight I was brushing bark off my shoulders. Each back-side run was eerily empty save for a few visitors who stuck dogmatically to the four blue and green runs that guided them to the cat track and safety. Off piste was the locals' haunt: When we stopped on Whitehorn to look around, a few hotshots blew past us, heckling Yves for his lollygagging. Yves had paused to point out Louise's other stash—the hikeable 8,902-foot Lipalian Mountain, home to the broad chest of Purple Bowl, the terrain used annually in the Canadian Powder 8 Champion-ships. (Unfortunately, we could only gawk; some of the worst snow stability in decades meant skiing the backcountry was a death wish.)

Between runs, Yves emerged as every bit the soul-skiing mountain freak Neil was. Sure, Neil stuck to the spartan way of life while Yves wasn't afraid of taking advantage of his privileged pupils: He told me about some pharmaceutical reps who took him heli-skiing the previous week and about another client's million-dollar house in Portugal where Yves planned to spend part of the summer. But like Neil, Yves had a respectable dedication to his sport. He was on the mountain every day—130 days the previous winter. "I live two stop signs from fresh tracks," he said. "I bought my SUV automatic so I could drive in my ski boots." It wasn't long before Yves, too, waxed philosophical. "I like the simplicity of Lake Louise," he said at lunch that day as he surveyed the slopes and the valley below. "It's kind of pure to the eye all the time. It's pristine, and quiet. There are more trees than people. Last night, after work, did you see Orion lined up with the glacier? It was just…pristine." Lake Louise may not be a hotbed of transcendental insight, but I let his half-baked rumination slide. The place is…pristine.

My remaining days at Lake Louise were a similar mix of high and low tastes—filet mignon of bison dipped in boiling fondue oil at the Chateau's wood-paneled Walliser Stube, followed by shepherd's pie at the locals' bargain hangout, the Outpost Pub, and a bunk at the Alpine Centre Hostel (all rumors—yoga, salmon—were true). Late night, when the rest of the valley slept, it was on to the seedy Grill and Bar for "dark 'n' dirties"—Newfoundland Screech dark rum and Coke—and each day revealed another surprise on the mountain. I sampled Lake Louise's massive terrain park, followed a Chateau maitre d' into mellow OB stashes like Maintenance, and, on a clear day after a storm, found fresh tracks—at 1 p.m.!—in Kiddie's Corner.

On my last morning I headed up Louise's old, creaky Eagle chair with Neil, who revealed his favorite LL secret: A couple nights each week, after the lifts closed, instead of returning to the phoneless home he rented in Banff, he skied into the woods to an illicit bivouac he would only coyly acknowledge. In the mornings he'd have backcountry powder all to himself. "Thirty-two below just last week," he told me, after some prodding. "I wore nine layers that night."

Then he told me about the book he was working on. "It's about how you can think about the natural world without only using science," he said. "There's another knowledge out there." Apparently, those frigid nights in the woods brought him closer to his subject. "As Thoreau has said, you cannot be a good naturalist and have a roof over your head. The sky needs to be your roof." This summer, he pronounced, he was planning to finish his metaphysic research at his Quebec birthplace, adding to the woo-woo knowledge he'd gleaned from bike trips through the Great Plains, Sumatra, and Australia. Then the adventurer will return to Lake Louise. "We can come and go, live a very simple life," Neil said, pointing down at the valley, where the Chateau looked like a toy someone had placed at the foot of the Rockies. "You can still be a philosopher and be here." Maybe. But you can definitely be a rippin' skier.

eau has said, you cannot be a good naturalist and have a roof over your head. The sky needs to be your roof." This summer, he pronounced, he was planning to finish his metaphysic research at his Quebec birthplace, adding to the woo-woo knowledge he'd gleaned from bike trips through the Great Plains, Sumatra, and Australia. Then the adventurer will return to Lake Louise. "We can come and go, live a very simple life," Neil said, pointing down at the valley, where the Chateau looked like a toy someone had placed at the foot of the Rockies. "You can still be a philosopher and be here." Maybe. But you can definitely be a rippin' skier.

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